Small Wars Journal

Turns Out Afghanistan’s Fate is a Game-Changer - Part II

Wed, 05/18/2022 - 9:43am

Turns Out Afghanistan’s Fate is a Game-Changer - Part II

 

By Allyson Christy

Sep 2021

Updated May 2022

A chessboard demands openings with foresight and stable authorities. As Zbigniew Brzezinski discusses in The Grand Chessboard, the task facing the United States from the turn of the twenty-first century forward involves “management of conflicts and relationships in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East” for which a rival power could challenge American “interests” or “well-being.”

China’s Gambit

Chinese leadership exploits voids, including those left vulnerable by Western neglect, and in some cases, by the West having ignored the threat of economic offensives. Using soft power approaches, China exerts influence by capitalizing on massive infrastructural projects—including agreements with U.S. allies and partners. Beijing courts development and financial favors along its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a modern Silk Road that subsidizes economic growth amid accusations of debt-trap diplomacy. In recent years, China has also increased its role in U.N. peacekeeping missions which essentially serves to safeguard its massive investments.

 

Afghanistan’s geographic location embodies the earliest routes of the Silk Road and modern development would benefit the BRI, but member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) present challenges. The Eurasian security bloc actually formed over 20 years ago to focus on regional security and development, but the bloc has largely enabled an encroachment of Chinese influence. Russia has sought to counter-balance that dominance. With security concerns      over Afghanistan and recent unrest in Kazakhstan, Moscow has increased military activities in Central Asia, largely through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—China is not a member nor does membership include all SCO members.

 

China’s grand strategy began to play out favorably with Taliban leaders in Tianjin last year. Under the auspices      of political deference and support for a peaceful transition of power, Chinese officials strategized talks by underscoring policies of non-interference in Afghan affairs. Foreign Minister Wang Yi used the opportunity to criticize U.S. troop departure as being “hasty” and evidence of American policy failures.

 

China’s objectives are clout, trade expansion, and to discredit the United States. Yet Beijing has also claims      to battle Islamic extremism and separatist movements, particularly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Forcing its Muslim populations to conform to Chinese nationality has escalated in recent years with uncompromising burdens imposed against ethnic Turkic Uyghurs. Reports      of internment camps, torture, forced labor, religious suppression, and forced birth control that includes sterilization, are increasingly marked to crimes against humanity.

  

Surprisingly, the Taliban have thus far sought to reassure China regarding Xinjiang. ISIS-K has similarly de-emphasized the abuse. The contrast between non-interference policies to Western intervention serves dual purposes. Chinese funding will likely accommodate dire economic needs in the region, while undercutting American influence.

 

Hinting at investing in reconstruction work, Taliban officials last year invoked friendship and support with talk of tightening border security with China. For Beijing, that includes the Taliban cutting ties to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)—a militant group attached to XUAR with cross border ties to Afghanistan. In 2020, the United States removed ETIM from a 2002 terrorist list, although in early 2018, US. forces struck both Taliban and ETIM training facilities in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan’s province.

 

Minimizing Uyghur persecution will not, however, secure Beijing’s trust. But less than a month after the Kabul chaos last August, China reportedly offered a $31 million aid package assigned to humanitarian relief. Securing Taliban confidence with aid and financing projects ultimately serves the BRI model and could potentially exploit Afghanistan’s natural resources. China has not officially recognized Taliban authority, but ostensibly supports reconstruction, aid, and lifting sanctions alongside international support.

 

Central and South Asian economies are weak due to decades of conflicts, violence, and wars. Landlock and isolation have kept the central region largely dependent on Russia and China. Investment in infrastructural development could also open trade routes to additional markets. Afghanistan is potentially the tipping point for developing a needed connectivity especially to South Asia, including the Indian Ocean. But neighboring SCO states differ on whether to recognize the Taliban.

 

Iran and China

Afghanistan may again become fertile ground for jihadist networks, and Iran has long regarded it providing a safe haven. Radical support for al-Qaeda, ISIS-K, and other transnational groups could be strengthened due to instability, raising Iranian fears over border spill-over. In January, Taliban representatives met with officials in Tehran for discussions on several topics, including an inclusive government. Officially Iran has not recognized Taliban authority, but concern for the country’s minority Shia population is ongoing and remains a high priority.

 

Although war against the Taliban is unlikely, mobilizing a proxy offensive is not. The threat of its Fatemiyoun Division—Shia fighters and a large contingent of “impoverished Afghans” who fought in Syria and are backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC)—is tangible. Many of those fighters “have returned to Afghanistan.” And while full membership in the SCO was extended to Iran last fall, the move strengthens Tehran’s power and diplomatic status and will increasingly facilitate intelligence and security cooperation with member states.

 

Despite tensions with Washington over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, China’s military-to-military ties with Iran have continued to expand. Beijing quietly undermined the reactivated sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration in 2018 that followed U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. Set to move forward a 25-year strategic deal with Iran, China not only seeks to expand trade, but to challenge American power in the area, using financial muscle. The $400 Billion agreement will also provide a much needed boost to the Iranian economy. However, there may be little choice for Tehran but to go along with what could develop into an indebted pawn status in an otherwise hegemonic plan. For now, China’s stand on the JCPOA appears to support what it deems are Iran’s reasonable demands.

 

Calculating strategic intentions through a disorder of geo-politics, China positions authority at military, political, and economic levels. But forging such activities between Central-Asian Sunni states and Iran will force political caution onto Beijing’s approach to the greater region, and particularly through its relationships with Arab states and Israel.

 

Israel and the Arab States

For Israel and its Arab neighbors, turmoil in Afghanistan represents further regional risk. Iran and its proxy Hezbollah lost no time in escalating anti-American rhetoric last August, ominously casting doubt over reliability in the U.S. security relationship with Israel. Hamas weighed in with similar warnings following the Taliban advance. While confidence in U.S. leadership in the region is at stake, a precarious standoff with Iran continues to highlight nuclear capabilities, sectarian contentions, and bold use of proxy forces for waging a regional power campaign and reinforcing anti-Western sentiment.

 

Although the Biden Administration early indicated a preference for restoring full compliance with the JCPOA, uncertainties and turmoil that plague the region may further incentivize Israel and its Arab partners to return to negotiations launched with the Abraham Accords. The Taliban victory demonstrates the quickness in which political vulnerabilities and open security gaps can wreak domestic and cross-border havoc. Defensive corridors are vital for securing the cooperation deal brokered in 2020 by the Trump Administration—those four nations who signed on—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco—and those privately considering the advantages. Perhaps that may next include Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

 

In early 2022, high-level meetings in Vienna meant to revive JCPOA provisions have also highlighted sanctions relief, which is a starting point for Tehran. Mitigating Iran’s continued nuclear activities includes excess uranium—some of which is now “enriched up to 60% purity” moving it closer to “weapons grade levels of 90%” and what to do with the overload. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can also no longer access camera surveillance. The current war in Ukraine exacerbates the deal moving forward as Russia is a key negotiator in the JCPOA consultations. Moscow initially redlined negotiations over severe sanctions imposed for its recent invasion into Ukraine and the potential for affecting its trade with Iran. But Russia soon after indicated it "received written guarantees" and withdrew the delay making the deal more likely to progress.

 

As Europe and the United States seek to disengage energy and oil dependence on Russia, alternative markets are also being considered. They include sanctioned Iran and sanctioned Venezuela and refreshing diplomatic channels with Saudi Arabia. The Biden Administration has already sent officials to Caracas. In late March, OPEC+ decided to take a bold and pragmatic approach to the current oil crisis by repudiating U.S. pressure over Russia and refusing to both politicize and increase crude production, seeking to instead, fairly balance the global oil market. Russian oil exports to the global markets are the largest, ranking second in crude behind Saudi Arabia.

 

The United States also elevated Qatar late last year to a special diplomatic status, formally representing Washington through its embassy in Kabul. Qatar, conversely, is also troubled with human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedoms, limited rights for women, and claims of trafficking and forced labor. Accusations for supporting terrorism have included funding Muslim Brotherhood elements and having dubious relations with Iran, provoking friction among Gulf neighbors and Egypt. And in 2017, mounting tensions with an Arab Quartet forced a three-and-a-half-year blockade against Doha. And in early 2022, the United States granted Qatar yet another strategic designation to that of a major      non-NATO ally, partly for help in processing Afghan refugees last year.

 

Tensions between Doha and Gulf monarchies over a close relationship with Iran and past support of the Muslim Brotherhood and ostensive support of terrorism, have begun to thaw. However, strategic competition today centers around security and sustaining peace and regional stability. Gulf leaders met for a summit in December last year, marking an end to a standoff with Qatar, with indications of possible rapprochement with Iran.

 

The Biden Administration earlier this year submitted the possibility of Qatar supplying natural gas to ease European dependency on Russia. Another special status was then awarded to Doha—official strategic partner; the latter stresses negotiations with Iran, mitigating the energy issue, and continuation in overseeing U.S. interests in Afghanistan.

 

The recent Negev Summit hosted by Israel in late March, with four Arab countries in attendance—Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Egypt—and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, emphasizes possibilities for solid relations by primarily addressing mutual concerns and finding common ground. The previous week had included talks on regional troubles hosted by Egyptian President Fattah Al-Sisi with UAE Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and included discussions on the restart of negotiations with Iran that have been held in Vienna. Securing diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and defense partnerships could go far in subduing a defiant Iran, while also confounding radical and destabilizing elements that are regional wide.

 

Conclusion

Western powers are largely focused on the Russian-Ukraine conflict, compounding a huge diversion of military, economic, and humanitarian aid to Kyiv. The Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (MENAP) region may yet beckon an expanded influx of foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) to concentrated areas, in which proxy divisions and non-state actors will re-energize and mobilize. Lone-wolf attacks have escalated across Israel in recent weeks at the start of Ramadan, with some of the perpetrators claiming allegiance to the Islamic State—a rising threat suggesting the grim possibility of yet a new enemy to consider.

 

As governments struggle with political and economic reforms further weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic, the omnipresence of volatility exacerbates many imbalances. Arab collaboration with Israel could underscore and safeguard against unstable factors that filter not only through Afghanistan—indeed, the PENAP region is rife for foreign Terrorist Fighters who will not return to their home countries, but who will instead, seek to regroup and re-establish operations and to recruit for militant causes and grievances. According to a 2018 estimate, South and South-East Asia may likely become the preferred destination of such fighters. Conditions at the tri-border region between Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and along the contentious Durand Line are complex and precarious and will not be easily resolved, if at all.

The Afghanistan disaster signifies game-changing across the geo-political chessboard. Whether ally confidence is shaken in the short or long run or that America’s enemies feel emboldened to test limits and move in to fill security gaps, regional consequences may aggravate current tensions while presenting new challenges. The hastened exit from a 20-year war showed a strategic blunder and still does not bode well for trust in U.S. commitments nor for reassurances about global leadership.

About the Author(s)

Allyson Christy holds an M.A. in Intelligence and Terrorism Studies from American Military University and an Executive Certificate in Counter-Terrorism from the ICT Herzliya. Twitter link @allysonchristy